Augie returns to Chicago, stopping to see his brother Georgie along the way. He is impressed that Georgie has learned the craft of shoemaking. He then drops in on Mama, finding her in a nicer apartment at her institution. She tells him to go see Simon, and Augie is thrilled to hear that Simon often talks to Mama about him. When Augie meets Simon he realizes that no matter what Simon does or becomes, ‘‘I loved him again. I couldn’t help it.’’ Simon is rich but unhappy and treats people around him with thinly disguised contempt. Augie then visits Einhorn, Mimi, Padilla, and Clem Tambow, all of whom offer advice as to what he should do next with his life. Clem tells Augie he needs to pick up an exciting specialty like Egyptology, but Augie feels it’s exactly the need for specialization that he doesn’t like about the modern world. Augie then lands a job as a research assistant to an eccentric millionaire named Robey. Robey claims to be writing a book on human happiness, but Augie perceives that he just wants to hear himself talk.
Augie begins teaching at a public school where his old neighbor, Kayo Obermark, is also teaching. Augie has dinner with Kayo and his family and ends up selling his run-down car to Kayo’s brother without telling him quite how bad it is. Augie tries to make amends, but in the end his friendship with Kayo is damaged. Sophie Geratis reappears, now married, but still interested in Augie. Augie has a profound philosophical conversation with Clem. Augie declares that life is only good when it conforms to what he calls its ‘‘axial lines’’ of ‘‘Truth, love, peace, bounty, usefulness, harmony!’’ Augie’s goal is to keep seeking these lines. His new plan is to get married and start a boarding school and bring Mama and Georgie to live at it. Clem is impressed but skeptical. However, before Augie can act on this new dream, World War II breaks out and he volunteers for military service. But in the process of signing up, Augie learns he has a hernia, undergoes surgery, and must wait to recuperate. During this time he sees Simon again and meets Simon’s longtime mistress, Renee. Augie finds her a ‘‘suspicious girl,’’ but Simon is devoted to her, seeing her before and after work every day. Augie is struck by the lack of trust in their relationship and is distressed by the rage he sees in Simon. One day, Simon tells Augie that Renee has attempted suicide, though he is not sure if she was serious about killing herself. Simon explains that Renee demands all the luxuries that Charlotte gets, and that Charlotte has found out about Renee. There was a confrontation between Charlotte and Renee, and now Renee claims to be pregnant. Augie notes that Simon ‘‘went to defy his wife, and soon found himself twice-married.’’
Augie travels to New York and prepares to ship out as a purser aboard a warship. He hears that Stella is in that city and goes to visit her, thinking, ‘‘What use was war without love?’’ Again he is irresistibly drawn to her and she to him. Before he ships out they share their hopes for the future, declare their love for each other, and decide to get married as soon as Augie completes his training.
Through Stella, Augie meets a man named Mintouchian, who is an experienced divorce lawyer. He is also having an affair with Stella’s friend Agnes Kuttner. Mintouchian, like so many before him, gives Augie advice, in this case about marriage and adultery. At first Augie is suspicious of his tales of lies and secrets, but he is delighted when Mintouchian concludes that ‘‘pure heartedness’’ and simplicity are the keys to happiness. Mintouchian then takes Augie to meet his wife, who tells a stunned Augie that she knows all her husband’s secrets, but, like Augie, thinks Mintouchian is ‘‘great, even if he is all too human.’’
Augie prepares for marriage and war feeling bolstered and ennobled by the purity of his love. Augie and Stella wed, with Frazer, Sylvester, Robey, Mintouchian, and Agnes in attendance. After a short honeymoon he ships out. Because of his duties and his character, Augie swiftly becomes the ‘‘ship’s confidant,’’ hearing the secrets of many of his shipmates. Augie counsels prudence: ‘‘Nobody is perfect. I advocated love especially.’’ But this job comes swiftly to an end when the ship is torpedoed, leaving Augie clinging desperately to a lifeboat. He helps another man into the boat but the favor isn’t returned. Augie manages to get into the boat and furiously beats his new companion. This man, the only other survivor, is named Basteshaw. Also from Chicago, his father did business with Einhorn. But Augie does not like him, the way he speaks of his father, or his pretensions of being a genius. Basteshaw claims to have created life and wants Augie to join him as his assistant. Basteshaw tells Augie they are headed straight toward the Canary Islands, where they will be able to set up a laboratory. Augie is impressed by Basteshaw’s intellect but finds him less than sane. When Augie tries to signal for help, Basteshaw attacks him and ties him up. Eventually Augie gains control of the boat and the two of them are rescued. They are taken to Naples, Italy, nowhere near where Basteshaw claimed they had been. Six months later, Augie is back in New York with Stella.
The novel concludes with Augie and Stella in France. His plan for his ‘‘academy and foster home’’ is gone, sacrificed to his love for Stella and her goal of being a film actress. He hopes to have children and to return to America, but Stella is uninterested. Augie works for Mintouchian, moving goods on the black market, and Mintouchian tells him that Stella long ago had an important romance that Augie has never heard about. He then learns that she is threatening to sue her former lover. Augie realizes that Stella lies ‘‘more than is average,’’ and that Stella’s desire to make it as an actress is in large part driven by her desire to show her old lover that she can be successful without him.
Simon and Charlotte come to Paris. Augie innocently asks Simon what has become of Renee, and Charlotte flies into a rage. Augie learns that she was never pregnant, has ‘‘disappeared,’’ and has married another wealthy man. Augie is once again overwhelmed with love for his brother as well as with pity as he realizes how much Simon wants to have the child he thought Renee was going to have.
In the final scene, Augie travels with his maid, Jacqueline, to northern France, where she is going to visit her uncle’s farm. Walking the final few kilometers, they begin singing. Augie sings a Mexican song, and she tells him it has always been her dream to travel to Mexico. Augie laughs hard at this, in part delighted that a woman who has had such a hard life ‘‘will still refuse to lead a disappointed life.’’ Or perhaps, he thinks, the joke is on nature for thinking that it can keep us from hoping and dreaming. Reflecting on his life’s experiences, Augie muses, ‘‘Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus. . . . I may well be a flop at this sort of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.’’ In the end, Augie is full of hope, despite his half-success at finding his ‘‘axial lines.’’
Source Credits: Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010